For many Marylanders going through a divorce, resolving issues through a separation agreement may seem like a good idea and, indeed, it very often is. It is not enough, though, simply to create an agreement; you need to be sure the agreement you get is the right agreement for you, and you need to be sure you are positioned to receive the benefits of the terms you negotiated. To do all of these things, you need an experienced Maryland divorce lawyer by your side every step of the way.
Cases from the courts in this state clearly highlight how, even after you’ve negotiated and executed a good agreement, your work may not yet be done. Take a look at this real-life divorce dispute from Baltimore County. The husband, an equine veterinarian, and the wife, a horseback riding instructor/polo coach, owned a farm in Freeland. When the horse-loving couple divorced, they executed a “Separation and Property Settlement Agreement,” which established several terms to which the spouses agreed.
Concerning the distribution of the farm they jointly owned, the contract set out four possible options, in order: (1) the wife buys out the husband, (2) if the wife declines, the husband could buy out the wife’s interest, (3) if both spouses decline, then the property could be sold by a real estate agent, or (4) the farm would be sold via a judicial sale.
The wife’s attorney notified the husband’s counsel in late September that the wife desired to exercise her option to buy out the husband’s interest and keep the farm. A few weeks later, the husband’s appraiser inspected the farm. Despite numerous requests from the wife and her attorney, the results of that appraisal were not forthcoming. Weeks passed. The husband’s attorney finally provided a copy of that appraisal on December 6, four days after the deadline for the wife to complete her buyout. Because the buyout was not completed before the deadline, the husband began seeking to have the farm sold by a real estate agent.
The trial court concluded that the wife had failed to exercise her option in time. The appeals court, however, recognized that this was incorrect.
You (and Your Spouse) Must Be ‘Reasonable’ in Meeting Separation Agreement Obligations
The appeals court recognized that allowing the husband to benefit from his delay would not be proper under the law. Ruling that the wife failed to exercise her option simply because the husband failed to fulfill his appraisal obligations before the deadline’s passing would effectively grant the husband a veto power over the wife’s exercise of her option – a power that was not written into the agreement. As the appeals put it, the husband “cannot simply refuse to undertake the steps necessary to ascertain the price and thereby effectively veto” the wife’s option.
Specifically, the husband violated the legal precept that obligates all contract parties to act reasonably. Under Maryland law, all contracts, including separation agreements created as part of a divorce, are analyzed through what’s called the “reasonable party” standard. According to the appeals court, there could be “no argument that providing [necessary valuation] information after the conclusion of the option period was objectively reasonable. It was not.” That was true even without a specific deadline date in the agreement for the completion of appraisals.
What this means is that, even if your agreement doesn’t specify every little detail, your spouse is still required to act in good faith and behave reasonably. Your spouse cannot do an ”end run” around the terms both of you agreed to in the contract by engaging in bad faith or unreasonable conduct to thwart the exercise of your contractual option rights.
Whether your divorce involves millions in assets or a smaller amount of wealth, ensuring that you get a fair result is undeniably important to you. Make sure you have what you need for success. To help you achieve your goals, look to the experienced Maryland family law attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC to help you navigate the process of divorce and protect your interests. To learn more about how we can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.